For decades, a major piece of counter-culture history was wedged behind a bed in Merl Saunders’ San Francisco house.
The crude pipe looks like something a teen may have cobbled together at summer camp, but according to art historian Steve Cabella, it’s basically a religious object. A so-called “spirit pipe,” this particular pot implement was made by LSD pioneer Augustus Owsley Stanley for Grateful Dead frontman Jerry Garcia, and it’s been MIA for decades.
“I’ve bought party pipes from rock people before,” Cabella — owner of California antiquities shop The Modern i — tells Rolling Stone. “They’re just funny little things; they have no history to them. No lost story. No lost connections. This is a different object. It’s sort of a holy grail in a lot of ways, because, obviously, when [Jerry] was smoking this pipe he was playing music at the time and that was where he was getting the spirit from — the creativity from.” Rolling Stone reached out to the band for comment but did not hear back.
The Grateful Dead and Owsley’s history are as intertwined as, well, drugs and rock & roll. Owsley — whose name is officially in the dictionary describing a strain of pure LSD — was the band’s original soundman and financial backer. He developed their distinctive Wall of Sound, helped design their logo, and, of course, kept them flush with LSD. The band even immortalized Owsley in song: 1967’s “Alice D. Millionaire,” a twist on a headline about the arrest of the so-called “king of acid.” Although he was tight with the whole band, Owsley was drawn, in particular, to Garcia. In a 2007 interview with Rolling Stone, Owsley called the Dead frontman “the sun in the center of the solar system. Take out the sun, and the planets all go their own way. Garcia was the center. Once he stopped exploring, the whole scene stopped exploring.”
That arrest wouldn’t be the last of Owsley’s legal troubles; in the early Seventies, he finally wound up in prison, where he honed the skills he would later use to make Garcia’s spirit pipe, along with other bits of what he called “wearable sculptures,” according to Cabella. Rhoney Stanley, Owsley’s ex and partner in LSD crime, tells Rolling Stone that he gifted her one of his first pieces when she visited him in jail: a metal heart with wings, a reference to the Hells Angels. “I wore it just the other night,” she says. “He always had to have the best materials. He was an artist. I was so impressed he found that outlet to get through prison.”
Although Rhoney says she never got a “spirit pipe” from Owsley, she says he made her one shaped like a whale, along with other pieces of jewelry. She also learned how to make wearable sculptures, using the casting skills she acquired to get into dental school. In her book, Owsley and Me: My LSD Family, Rhoney describes Owsley gifting her that metal heart: “‘I’m working in the shop, learning metallurgy, making jewelry. This is for you,’” she recalls him saying. “It doesn’t lie exactly flat. My first piece. I’ll get better.’” (He would later try to charge her $10,000 for a white Pegasus with ruby eyes.)
In Cabella’s opinion, Owsley never really got that much better. “If you look at Owsley’s early rock posters, they’re really cute,” he says. “They’re like an eighth grader made them. They’re very basic, as are his jewelry techniques. … [Jerry’s pipe] looks like someone with a few years of art school produced it and did the best they could. It looks like a hippie made it.”
“In my mind, Owsley was never a good artist,” he adds. “Copied isn’t the right word, borrowed isn’t the word, stolen isn’t the right word, but he would use other people’s designs or have people make the designs that he had in his head.”
Owsley’s son, Starfinder Stanley — who has questions about the pipe’s origins — disagrees with Cabella’s assessment of his father’s work. “Bear hand-carved wearable art in gold under a dissecting microscope, and meticulously enameled it in a kiln he designed and had custom built,” he tells Rolling Stone, referring to his father’s nickname. “It is very original, spectacular when seen in person, but very difficult to photograph.”
Cabella has carved out a niche in the art world when it comes to Owsley; he says he first met him in a jewelry-making class at the College of Marin in the late Eighties, later acquiring an Owsley brass belt buckle shaped like the cover of the Dead’s 1976 album Steal Your Face from a poster collector. Cabella gained a solid reputation as a purveyor of all things Dead-related about 20 years ago, though, when he happened upon a 1949 red Studebaker truck while archiving a jeweler’s estate in Berkeley. He got the truck for a song, only finding out later that it belonged to Owsley during the period he was doing sound for the Dead. Nicknamed the Dreaded Dormammu — after a Dr. Strange villain — the truck sold to a private collector three years ago for around $24,000, which was basically what Cabella spent restoring it.
His experience with Dead items — particularly those related to Owsley — made Cabella a natural first stop for Merl Saunders Jr. about a decade after he discovered Garcia’s pipe behind a built-in bed while remodeling his father’s house after his 2008 death. Saunders Jr. sold it to Cabella for a few grand, “basically my entire budget I had for buying rare rock posters at the time, but it seemed like a no-brainer,” Cabella says. Saunders Jr. replied to Rolling Stone’s initial email confirming that he sold the pipe to Cabella, but did not respond to follow-ups.
Cabella says Saunders Jr. told him that Garcia kept the pipe at his father’s house after the rock star was arrested in Golden Gate Park with a briefcase of drugs in 1985. He briefly quit drugs after the arrest, but, according to a letter from Saunders’ son, Garcia smoked the pipe when he was recording 1991’s Blues from the Rainforest with Saunders — and on many other occasions.
“The pipe is a special thing. I was told by Merl Saunders’ son that [no one else smoked out of it],” Cabella says. “It was Jerry’s pipe. Only Jerry’s pipe. It was obviously used, but it never became a party pipe. That’s the only reason it still exists, because it was lost and nobody could find it. Everybody forgot about it.”
When Cabella first got the pipe, he wasn’t wholly aware of its history. Sure, the letter from Saunders Jr. mentioned that it was “a personal gift from Owsley to Jerry,” but it took some sleuthing to find out that it had actually been made by Owsley — and why and when. Due to his history with Owsley’s work, Cabella was able to ascertain that the pipe was fashioned by the man himself — along with a weird little skull made out of God-knows-what that came with it. The pipe itself offered up still more clues. First, there was an ivory medallion on the bottom of the pipe, which features a crudely carved image of a big cat sitting proudly in the center of a setting sun. The image is identical to the cover of the Jerry Garcia Band’s 1978 album, Cats Under the Stars. From there, Cabella was able to surmise when, approximately, the pipe was made.
And then there was a carved image of a crouching tiger on a hillside. Again, although crude, it’s a dead ringer for the inlaid design on Garcia’s famous guitar, Tiger, made by luthier Doug Irwin in the late Seventies. (Irwin did not respond to Rolling Stone’s request for comment.) Cabella thinks that the Tiger was Garcia’s spirit animal, as given to him by Owsley, recalling the story of Tiger the guitar’s origins. When shown another of Irwin’s instruments, dubbed “The Rosewood,” Garcia was taken with an inlaid image of a big cat on the electronic plate, which led to the animal’s prominent appearance on his now signature instrument.
“Owsley would anoint people with a spirit animal. Owsley’s first partner [Melissa Cargill] is called Owl, that was her spirit name,” Cabella says, surmising that Garcia was given his own spirit name and, in turn, a spirit pipe bearing its image. According to Cabella, Owsley’s widow, Sheilah, also has a pipe, but won’t share images of it. “You don’t show these to people. You don’t show spirit pipes,” he says. “They’re not a novelty. It’s like finding some religious object; it becomes a historic object. There’s a responsibility to it.”
Now, it seems, the responsibility has fallen to Cabella, who is loathe to sell the piece — which apparently still smells of burnt drugs — or entrust it to any old museum. “I’m very much into exhibition preservation and education. So the next place that this resides can’t just be a pot museum. It’s more than that,” he says. “I don’t want it to end up somewhere where somebody smokes out of it. That was Jerry’s job.”
This story was updated on 11/3 at 4:05 pm with a quote from Starfinder Stanley.